Senju (1000 Homes, but the actual meaning is lost)
Most people in Tōkyō have been to (or at least heard of) 北千住 Kita-Senju North Senju. Few people have heard of its depressing counterpart, 南千住 Minami-Senju South Senju. If you read about life during the Edo Period, especially sankin-kōtai, you’ll come across the name 千住 Senju (usually without a “north” or “south” attached to it).
“1000 Homes” makes this place sound like a bustling suburb of Edo (I’m sure it was a great place to raise a family lol). But the fact of the matter is that this place name is officially a mystery. Let’s look at the 3 prevailing theories about this place name, shall we?
The 千葉氏 Chiba-shi Chiba clan lived here during the Sengoku Period[i]. This theory would have us believe that the place name is a play on words. The family name Chiba is made of two kanji, 千 chi/sen 1000 and 葉 ha leaves. The word for “lives in” is 住む sumu. With the implicit understanding that the kanji 千 sen represented the Chiba clan and 住 shu represented living, the resulting combination 千住 Senju would mean 千葉氏が住んだ所 Chiba-shi ga sunda tokoro “the place where the Chiba clan lived.” This etymology is not just boring; it’s insulting to the intelligence[ii].
Another theory is the 8th Ashikaga shōgun, Yoshimasa[iii], kept a mistress whose hometown was a small village in the area. Her name was 千寿 Senju. The area adopted her name to raise its prestige[iv]. Long time readers of JapanThis can probably guess what I think of this theory, so let’s move on.
Since the place name for Senju first appears in the historical record in 1279 with the ateji 千寿, these Muromachi and Sengoku Era names are most likely fake, but there are schools and other places in the area that still use the kanji 千寿. This probably has little to do with Yoshimasa’s prostitute lover, though, and more to do with the auspiciousness of the kanji. 千 sen means 1000 and 寿 su/kotobuki means “congratulations!” or “long life!” Thus, 千乃寿 sen no kotobuki means “congratulations 1000 times!”[v] Since this is the earliest way of writing the word and it is obviously ateji, it leads me to believe that this represents a much older place name which has unfortunately been lost to history.
The next theory? OK. A statue of 千手観音 Senju Kan’non 1000 armed Kan’non, was pulled out of the 荒川 Arakawa Arakawa (River)[vi]. Thus the area was known as 千手 Senju 1000 Arms, which just sounds creepy. Over time, the place name came to be written as 千住 Senju 1000 Homes, which sounds like a nice place to raise to a family. Believe it or not, this is the most accepted etymology.
I say “poppycock” to the random 1000 armed statue floating down the river; however the statue was housed at the nearby temple, 勝専寺 Shōsen-ji Shōsen-ji, so it’s possible there might be some connection. But given the antiquity of the place name, I would venture to say that it’s actually the other way around. The old name Senju was the reason for making a senju statue. Japanese temples and shrines capitalize on this kind of play on words all the time; I don’t see why Shōsen-ji would have been any different.
So my guess is that each of these are folk etymologies and that the real place name pre-dates all of them. The original ateji is nice, though. It’s very auspicious. But remember, ateji doesn’t have meaning, so we may never know the true origins of the name.
A Few Bits of Trivia About Senju:
★ The old Edo shitamachi dialect is preserved by some local people in the area. They don’t call the area Senju, but Senji.
★ The most important town in the area was 千住宿 Senju-shuku Senju Post Town, which was the first 宿場 shukuba post town on the 日光御成街道 Nikkō Onari Kaidō[vii]. Because the 水戸街道 Mito Kaidō and 奥州街道 Ōshū Kaidō also branched off from here, it was one of the busiest post towns of the Greater Edo Area.
★ To supervise the development and maintenance of the Nikkō Kaidō, Tokugawa Hidetada constructed a small 御殿 goten shōgunal lodging at Shōsen-ji[viii]. Hidetada, Iemitsu, and Ietsuna are all recorded as having stayed here. I imagine other shōguns stayed here, too. After all, the Nikkō Kaidō was an Onari Kaidō, that is to say, it was reserved for the private use of the shōgun and his retinue[ix].
★ 北千住 Kita-Senju (literally, North Senju) is well known throughout Tōkyō as a shitamachi (low city) area that preserves some of the so-called Edo-kko culture[x]. It’s lesser well-known counterpart, Minami-Senju (literally, South Senju) is virtually unknown. Those who do know it, have a very bad impression of the town… for reasons I’ll get into next week.
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[i] Yes, this is the same Chiba clan whose name now adorns present day Chiba Prefecture in all its, um, glory.
[ii] Although, I had my balls handed to me by the etymology of Daita. So I guess I should keep an open mind.
[iii] Yes, that Ashikaga Yoshimasa. The Ashikaga shōgunate sucked balls from the beginning, but this clown is the guy under whose watch the Ōnin War broke out – that is to say, it was on his watch that Japan descended into the proverbial clusterfuck that we call the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai the Warring States Period.
[iv] As if the some chick that the 8th shōgun of the lamest shōgunate was banging was prestigious…
[v] Sushi lovers out there will recognize this kanji as the first character of the ateji 寿司 sushi sushi.
[vi] As 1000 armed statues just float down rivers and get caught in fishermen’s nets all the time.
[vii] By now you should all know what shukuba were, but feel free to check my articles on Nihonbashi, Itabashi, and Shinjuku for a quick refresher.
[viii] Goten is often translated as “palace,” but in this case, I think “lodging” is better. Basically, when the shōgun and his entourage rested here, this is where they stayed the night – it wasn’t like a second home or anything. And as making a pilgrimage to the shrines at Nikkō was a spiritual perfunctory task and the procession was a purely martial affair, this sort of goten would have befitted a shōgun but was probably quite spartan.
[ix] I go into detail about the meaning of 御成 o-nari “the presence of the shōgun” in my article on Yūshōin, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ietsugu.
[x] 江戸っ子Edo-kko child of Edo is what you call a 3rd generation Tōkyōite. The stereotype is a plain speaking local of the shitamachi area. This stereotype has more to do with the post-Tokugawa merchant middle class class than it does with Edo’s samurai past.